Dog chasing squirrel

Our dog is a determined squirrel hunter. He hasn’t caught any, but he loves to follow their scent and chase them. It’s like he’s obsessed! Is there a way to teach him to leave the squirrels alone?

When it comes to protecting their yards from squirrels, many dogs see themselves as canine Homeland Security agents. Dogs bred to flush small animals are especially inclined to this behavior. Our Wire Fox Terrier, Scooter, was notorious for patrolling the fence line, even though she was more likely to befriend any squirrel she caught, rather than harm or kill it.

For some dogs, though, chasing after small animals can be a safety hazard. I worked with a Beagle named Gus who became obsessed with sniffing out the trail of a squirrel, pursuing it even hours after it had passed through the yard. Despite reinforced and seemingly secure fencing, Gus would find his way out of his yard to pursue to the squirrel. His escapes and his single-minded focus on tracking the intruder worried his family. Dogs like Scooter and Gus, who cannot seem to resist the urge to stalk squirrels, need other outlets to channel their predatory and chase behavior.

There are a few ways to redirect your dog’s attention away from the squirrels — your success may depend on what it is about the squirrels that intrigues your dog (is it their scent or their presence?). I suggest you try several — or all — of these methods and see what works best. And consider keeping your dog close to you on leash in the beginning to help him stay focused and not be tempted by the squirrels.

Turn Smelling Into a Game

Scent games are one way to redirect your dog’s desire to pursue interesting smells. One easy scenting game is “find it,” which redirects the dog’s seeking behavior away from the squirrels and toward toys and food items. A simple version of “find it” is to scatter kibble in the grass and let your dog search for it. This gives him an opportunity to hunt for his meal, and use his seeking and sniffing skills. "Find it" challenges your dog mentally and physically — and he is rewarded for his hard work with a delicious meal. Doing this task once or twice a day during mealtime can help channel your dog’s energy and focus away from the squirrels, and give him something else to do when he’s out in your yard.

Another "find it" game is a kind of modified Easter egg hunt: Have your dog seek toys, food puzzles and chew items that you have hidden in the yard. To encourage your dog to pursue an alternative scent trail, toys can be covered with a game scent purchased at a hunting supply store. Try to choose a scent that your dog is unlikely to find in his normal environment and be aware that these scents are best kept outside.

Help Keep Chase Safe and Fun

If your dog’s favorite part of chasing the squirrels is the actual chase, redirect him to an appropriate toy. A flirt pole or a stuffed toy tied to the end of a rope is a good alternative to chasing a real squirrel. Encouraging your dog to chase after designated toys can help release pent-up energy, which can lead to better behavior in other situations.

Turn the sight of a squirrel into an opportunity to engage with you in an acceptable chase by immediately getting out the flirt pole toy. You can also use "come when called" to turn a squirrel sighting into a fun game of doggy tag — followed by a treat party to reinforce the behavior.

Take Up a Sport

You might also want to consider channeling your dog’s natural talents into a dog sport (that is, once your veterinarian examines your dog and feels he’s physically capable of this kind of exercise). Canines who are driven to sniff out interesting trails are likely to excel in dog sports like Earthdog and nose work, while dogs who love to chase and move may enjoy flyball and lure coursing.

If your dog’s chase behavior is becoming a concern, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian for her guidance and potential partnership with a reward-based trainer or referral to a veterinary behaviorist to give you the full help you need. Best wishes and happy training!

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